This is an excerpt from “Between the Ears Skills: Building Mental Muscle for Athletes” available for free download at

You just did something totally awesome. Did you catch it? Somehow, amidst all of the distractions in your life, you’ve taken the time and made the decision to purchase, download, and crack open this book. That is no coincidence. You actively used volition and here you are.

Pat yourself on the back. You’ve given yourself a gift. The opportunity to learn new skills. To grow, develop, and hone new highly effective habits. Reading this book isn’t as juicy as eating a ripe summer peach and it probably won’t provide you the warm fuzzy of your favorite fleece sweatshirt on a cool, fall evening. If you’re reading this book, you’re planning on rolling up your sleeves and taking time to invest in yourself. Getting a little dirty and spending some time out of your usual comfort zone. You’re willing to risk discomfort and change for the potential of improved performance (potential only because you actually have to do the things mentioned in the book, not just read them). This is why you are awesome.

So…why are you doing this?

Of course it is because you’re awesome (as just mentioned), but there’s likely some other factor, such as an event or person, that has prompted you to do this.
It might be because:

  • You’re highly frustrated with where you are right now.
  • You’ve experienced disappointment and failure.
  • You’re questioning if all the time and energy you put into your sport, work, or hobby is worth it.
  • You’re ready to perform at a higher level and achieve greater success.
  • Other: _________________________

Understanding your own source of motivation is a highly valuable piece of information.

The “P” Factors: Pain & Pleasure

Human behavior is goal-oriented and that goal falls the two broad categories: pain or pleasure. They both are good at motivating behavior. Decreasing your driving speed when you see a police car with a radar gun is an example of being motivated by pain (the fear of getting a speeding ticket, higher insurance costs). Staying up all night to cram for an exam or complete a project is likely motivated by pain (fear of getting a bad grade or losing your job). Although pain can be a good motivator, it also brings along some unnecessary stress.

Motivation by pleasure is an alternative source of motivation that reduces or eliminates stress altogether. Instead of running away from something (pain, fear); being motivated out of pleasure helps you move towards your goal. We’ll talk more about goals later, but you definitely want them. Knowing what you don’t want can be helpful, particularly for short-term goals. However, for the most part, focus your behavior on achieving what you want. Running away from fear, pain, discomfort is stressful and reactive. Running toward a goal (pleasure) is exciting and proactive. Ironically, it is often the fear of failure or not performing well that decreases performance (e.g., increasing muscle tension, distracting thoughts).

Be miserable. Or motivate yourself. Whatever has to be done, it’s always your choice.
—–Wayne Dyer

How to Use Internal & External Motivators

Internal and external motivators can be very helpful. However, it is important to use them in an appropriate and responsible manner.

For mundane, boring tasks and chores, what is one simple thing you can do to make the task more enjoyable? Would listening to some music be helpful? Personally, I’m a coffee drinker. Sitting down to complete mundane paperwork is much more enjoyable with my favorite beverage.
Would rewarding yourself after you complete the task be motivating? External rewards, especially with activities we dislike, can be a useful motivator (e.g., watch your favorite television show after completing homework).

For larger tasks, break them down into smaller steps. Ask yourself, what would it feel like to make one step towards this awesome goal? Chances are that taking a step, even if it’s temporarily unpleasant, will be overridden by the enjoyment of having taken a step to an important goal. Stop wasting energy thinking about doing something. Instead, refocus that mental energy on how good it would feel to reach that ultimate goal and to do something to bring you one step closer to reaching it.

Beyond Pleasure & Pain

Pain and pleasure motivators are simple and rather straight forward. There are times when these won’t cut it and it is important to be aware of several other highly effective motivators. The Self-Determination Theory tells us people are also motivated by: feeling competent, autonomous and independent, and a sense of connection to others.                   

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.  


Motivating Others

When we are motivated by thoughts or emotions, such as fear, we are being motivated by internal motivators. When we are being motivated into action by something external to us, such as an angry bear who wants to eat us for lunch, we refer to this as an external motivator. The best motivation comes from internal motivation. Excellent leaders and coaches recognize this and avoid using external motivation. When possible, make every attempt to encourage internal motivation.

You remember how it was just mentioned that people are also motivated by feeling competent, autonomous, and connected to others? Well, listen up coaches, leaders, and other individuals who strive to motivate others as this is critical information for you!  These three factors are all feelings that originate inside a person. In a moment, you’ll see how sometimes an outside or external motivator is beneficial, but fueling internal motivation in a person is a much more effective method. I use the word “fueling” here instead of creating. We cannot control how someone feels, but we can do things to help guide a person to experience a certain feeling.

Example of Internal Motivation: A child studies for his or her upcoming science test without prompting from parent.
Note: Parents need to butt out of this situation. Do not attempt to “sweeten” this experience for the child by offering to provide an external reward, such as money or food. This could reduce the child’s internal motivation and, in this situation, the very last thing we want to happen.
Example of External Motivation: Parent tells child, “I will give you $5 for every A on your report card.”

Why is this unfortunate? It ignores that learning is a process and the importance of learning itself. What happens during a semester is just as, if not more, important than a final grade on the report card. Encouraging the joy of learning is one of the most valuable gifts adults can offer children. Secondly, the final product, in this case the grade, should be viewed as the “icing on the cake.” Icing makes a cake extra yummy, but icing without the cake is just a mass of sticky goo lacking substance. Future employers or clients will not care what grades you received on your report card in 2nd grade (or even in graduate school). They will care about the skills you possess!
Encouragement Vs. Praise
Encouraging statements, not praise, by the parent are beneficial. These sound like, “Billy, I see that you’re really taking this test seriously and putting in a lot of effort into your studies. That makes me very proud of you. I’m excited to hear about all the neat things you are learning!”

Quick Tip: Keep Internal Motivation Internal!

Don’t mess with someone’s internal motivation! Adults, usually parents, want to focus on end products (e.g., scoring a goal, getting “good” grades). If you want to reinforce and support your child, let them know that you’re aware of the hard work and effort he or she are putting into their studies, activities, chores, etc. You want them to know that you care about them, not what they do or can do for you!

The Correct Way to Motivate Others

Sometimes, a person needs help increasing their internal motivation. Remember, we cannot control how someone feels, but we can help them increase their internal motivation. Read on for an example that uses the motivators of competence, autonomy, and sense of connection to increase a child’s internal motivation.

Example of Adult Encouraging a Child’s Internal Motivation: Parent sees a child is procrastinating and not wanting to study for an upcoming exam.

Parent: “Billy, I get the sense that you are not looking forward to your science test.”

Child: “Uh, yeah.” (complete with blank, “Duh!” stare).

Parent: Do you think there’s anything I can do to make studying easier for you?

Child: “Uh….[expect pause and silence] Well, I study best at the dining room table, but it’s still covered with dishes from dinner.”

Parent: “Would it be helpful if we cleaned off the table together so you can get started studying?”

Child: “Uh…I guess so.”

Parent: “Great! Let’s do that.”
Child: “Okay.”

Adapt these words/phrases as needed to make sense in your world. The bottom line is to get the individual (child) to come up with his or her own suggestions and ideas. As parents, teachers, or coaches, we want to support them and guide them. Also, make sure not to rush the process. If a child is unable to come up with their own ideas, offer several options for them to select from. Remember, this is a great time to boost motivation using competence, autonomy, and sense of connection to others.

Other Motivational Tidbits:

  1. Be very clear and specific about what motivates you. If you are struggling, trying out some of the following motivators. Which of the following motivates you the most?
  • Social Acceptance
  • Feeling Important
  • Being Comfortable
  • Sense of Control
  1. Do any of these reasons conflict with one another? If so, which one wins out?
  2. In an athletic or business organization, what are some of the shared goals? Be cognizant and sensitive to cultural differences.
  3. If you are a leader or coach, it is important to recognize the importance of knowing how to motivate your athletes. Nonetheless, it is recommended to provide 3 to 12 positive comments for every one (1) criticism.

You can motivate by fear and you can motivate by reward. But both of those are temporary. The only lasting thing is self-motivation.
Homer Rice

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